The calendar has flipped over to August and its finally time for hockey.
Seriously. Not a typo. Don’t worry, I think it feels weird too.
The Stanley Cup qualifiers began this weekend, with five of the series starting on Saturday. Three more begin on Sunday, including the Toronto Maple Leafs playing host to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Maple Leafs may technically only have home ice advantage for up to three games in the series but will be back on their own ice at Scotiabank Arena in the Toronto bubble for their entire best-of-five series against the Blue Jackets.
The road to the these “playoffs” (the first round is not technically playoffs, it is qualifying) has been longer than any other in hockey history and any speculation about how the series could play out has been premature for months.
But with the series starting on Sunday night, it is finally the appropriate time to break down the upcoming match up between the Eastern Conference’s eighth-seeded Maple Leafs and ninth-seeded Blue Jackets.
After a rocky start, the Maple Leafs finished the season in the same spot they did a year ago, third in Atlantic division after a tough battle with the Florida Panthers down the stretch.
It was a solid finish considering the team had started 9-10-4 before head coach Mike Babcock was fired in mid-November. The move reinvigorated the team under new head coach Sheldon Keefe and, despite struggling to find consistency, the Leafs would go 27-15-5 after the change, although they missed a number of opportunities to bury the Panthers which raised some questions about the Leafs ability to win in the clutch.
A year after sneaking into the playoffs in the final wildcard spot, the Blue Jackets looked to be in position to do it again as they sat one point inside the playoffs when play was halted (although they were seeded behind the New York Islanders based on winning percentage for the new playoff format).
While the Blue Jackets had a worse record than the Leafs, 33-22-15 compared to Toronto’s 36-25-9, they also had to contend with the far-more competitive Metropolitan division, who accounted for six of the top nine teams in the east.
The thing is, with a four-month break between the regular season and the playoffs, what happened in the first four months of the season probably will not matter much in the playoffs. No team is coming in hot or with momentum. Everyone is even.
Head to Head
The Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets met twice in the regular season, with each team winning one game.
The first meeting came in just the second game of the season, when the Leafs walked into Columbus and their kids put on a show, with Mitch Marner scoring twice and Auston Matthews adding a classic snipe in a 4-1 win.
A couple of weeks later, in Toronto, the Leafs young guns again impressed with Matthews, Kasperi Kapanen, and William Nylander all finding the scoresheet to help the Leafs comeback after going down 2-0 in the first five minutes.
However, it was all for not as Gustav Nyquist beat Freddie Andersen on a penalty shot in overtime to give the Blue Jackets the win.
One interesting statistic to note is that the Blue Jackets matched the Leafs in shots in the first meeting at 29, but led them 38-34 in the second. Both teams were among the league leaders in shots per game in the regular season with the Leafs slightly ahead, but the Jackets had the edge in the matchups.
It is hard to learn anything from these two meetings, firstly because they came in the first couple of weeks of the season, but also because it was the Babcock Leafs. They were an unhappy bunch of guys playing a style of hockey that they were not built for. There is no question that the Keefe Leafs are better, they just never got to test it out against the Blue Jackets.
But considering that the Babcock Leafs got three of four points out of meetings with the Blue Jackets, one can assume that the Keefe Leafs can do better.
Edge: Maple Leafs
This is a matchup of teams with less than stellar playoff records in the 21st century.
The Blue Jackets are only in the playoffs for the sixth time in franchise history (since they entered the league in 2000). Of those six trips, they have only won one playoff series.
That being said, that series win was last year when they stunned the league by sweeping the President’s Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning. So this is a team that not only has won a series, but scored a big underdog victory that they can draw on for inspiration.
On the other side, there may be no team more notorious for playoff disappointment, or just disappointment in general, in the NHL than the Leafs.
We all know that the four scariest words in Toronto are “game seven in Boston.”
The Maple Leafs have not won a playoff series since 2004, before the lockout. They’ve lost in the first round three years in a row, the last two to Boston in game seven. The year before that it was a six-game loss to the Washington Capitals in a series that saw five games go to overtime.
So despite making the playoffs every year in the Matthews era so far, the Leafs are still looking to shake the “first round choker” moniker.
Fun fact: In the 21st century, the Toronto Maple Leafs have only won one playoff series against a team other than the Ottawa Senators. That was the 2002 ECQF against the New York Islanders.
I know this series is not technically the playoffs, it’s “qualifying,” but it will certainly feel like a playoff series.
Edge: Blue Jackets.
The contrast between these two teams is stark. The Maple Leafs were the second-highest scoring team in the league during the regular season, while the Blue Jackets were 28th, the lowest-scoring team to make the playoffs.
Appropriately, the Leafs averaged 3.39 goals forward per game, while the Blue Jackets only managed 2.57.
Matthews led the two teams in scoring, ranking third in the league 47 goals and ninth with 80 points.
Columbus’ offence cannot even compare with the Leafs.
Oliver Bjorkstrand led the Blue Jackets with 21 goals, which would have tied him for fourth on the Leafs. Bjorkstrand did miss a number of games, having ankle surgery in February. Fortunately for him and the Jackets, the pandemic gave him time to recover and he will play in the series.
Pierre-Luc Dubois Columbus with 49 points. All members of the Leafs’ big four (Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and John Tavares) had him bested by at least ten points.
And that’s all without getting into the depth, with guys like Alex Kerfoot and Jason Spezza able to provide sparks in the Leafs’ bottom six.
They’re faster. They’re more creative. There is no question that the Leafs have the more dangerous offence.
Edge: Maple Leafs
How did Columbus get into the playoffs with such a bad offence?
Simple. They own one of the best defences.
The Blue Jackets allowed the third fewest goals against during the regular season, trailing only Dallas and Boston. They limited opponents to just 29.9 shots and 2.61 goals per game, top ten in the league (and better than the Leafs) in both categories.
The Leafs defence has been a problem for years and this season was no better. They allowed the second-most goals of all the teams that made the playoffs, also allowing 32.9 shots per game and 3.17 goals against. Not good.
The only good sign for the Leafs defence is they are playing against one of the league’s worst offences.
Neither team is the most physical, although Columbus owns the slight edge in hits, ranking 20th in the league while the Leafs ranked 29th.
While perhaps not entirely a defensive statistic, the Blue Jackets are one of the safest teams in the league with the puck, finishing with the seventh-fewest giveaways, while the Leafs committed the sixth most.
Edge: Blue Jackets
Goaltending is an interesting category because it is clear cut for one of these teams, the other not so much.
Barring a sudden injury, Andersen will be between the pipes for the Leafs. The Dane did not have his best season in blue and white to say the least. Even though he ranked fourth in the league with 29 wins, his .909 save percentage and 2.85 GAA left a lot to be desired.
Of course, he was also saddled with the crummy Leafs defence and faced the fourth-highest number of shots against in the league, a regular trend during his years in Toronto.
While Andersen has usually been strong in the regular season since coming to Toronto in 2016, he has been a disappointment in the playoffs, going 8-12 with a GAA of 3.00 and a save percentage of .911.
Put simply, Andersen will have to be better if he hopes to finally win a series with the Leafs.
The good news for him is that he will be rested after a four-month layoff. In the last few years, he entered the playoffs having made 60+ regular season starts. That being said, Andersen has always been a slow starter as a Leaf so he is a bit of a wild card.
Speaking of wild cards, Columbus’ goaltending situation is fascinating.
Both Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins made over 30 starts this season. Korpisalo had more wins, but Merzlikins had a better GAA and save percentage.
Neither has ever started a playoff game.
Merzlikins took over as the starter when Korpisalo was injured at the end of December, but Korpsialo got his job back when he returned in late February.
Korpisalo was in net for both games against the Leafs in October.
As of now, it is not clear who will start in net for the Blue Jackets, although the rumour mill seems to be leaning Merzlikins.
In any case, when healthy and on their game, Andersen is still the best goalie available in this series. And even if you consider failure experience, one can consider any experience to be experience and Andersen has more than both Blue Jackets goalies combined. And given that he is rested and healthy, he has a chance to play his best.
Also, he has to face the weak Columbus offence.
Edge: Maple Leafs
Power play: Maple Leafs
Not surprisingly considering their overall offenses, but the Maple Leafs have one of the better power play units in the league, while Columbus has one of the worst. And Toronto’s power play often underperformed. With a first unit that sometimes features Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, and Morgan Rielly, one could easily argue that their 23.1 PP% is a disappointment. This is a unit that has gone in stretches of scoring nearly 50 percent of the time on the PP.
Penalty kill: Blue Jackets
It is not just that the Blue Jackets have a better penalty kill percentage, but they take the fewest penalties in the league and subsequently allowed the fewest power play goals. The best way to kill a penalty, and to keep that devastating Leafs PP off the ice, is to not take any penalties to begin with.
What decides the series
Obviously the major story line is Toronto’s offence vs Columbus’ defence.
If the Leafs can make this a goal scoring series, they win. If Columbus wants to win, they need to keep the scores low.
It is hard to pick a winner in that matchup.
On the other hand, it could also be on the Leafs not to give the series away. They have had a prolific offence for years but just keep losing in the playoffs not only because better defences shut them down, but because their own defence cannot keep the puck away from their own net.
Of course, Boston and Washington, the two teams who have beaten this era of Maple Leafs in the playoffs, had better offenses than the Blue Jackets. So even if the Leafs defence is not very good, they might have a slight edge over the Columbus offence.
And if Freddie Andersen can stand on his head the way he often does in the regular season but has not in the playoffs, even a low-scoring series can turn the Leafs way. The fact is that Toronto will score goals. The same cannot be said for the Blue Jackets.
But if there is a team that can blow it and let a poor offence light them up, it is Toronto and their swiss cheese defence.
Prediction: Blue Jackets in 5
Defence wins championships and the Leafs often get flustered when playing tough defences.
And the Blue Jackets can draw on their upset of the Lightning last year as inspiration. They have proven that they can beat a high-flying offence in the playoffs. The same cannot be said for Toronto. When the going gets tough, go with experience and defence. And considering the match-ups in this series, it will be tight.